Thinking About Patriotism

This lesson, including a student survey, a reading using original documents, and suggestions for discussion, invites students to consider what it means to be a patriot in the United States.

What do you think about patriotism?

Mark each item below (P) if you think it represents a patriotic act, (U) if you think it represents an unpatriotic act, (?) if you are uncertain.

1. Refusing to say the pledge of allegiance because you don't think the U.S. provides "liberty and justice for all."

2. Helping runaway slaves before the Civil War in the 1850s even though the Fugitive Slave Law makes such actions illegal.

3. Supporting a Constitutional amendment that would prohibit burning an American flag.

4. Volunteering to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War because you support President Lyndon Johnson's stated goal of preventing the spread of communism in Asia.

5. Stating, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did during the Vietnam War, "The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America." ("Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?)

6. Being arrested for blocking the sidewalk while picketing the White House during World War I to protest the fact that women could not vote.

7. Recruiting volunteers to serve in the Army in Iraq.

8. Participating in a Memorial Day parade.

9. Opposing recruitment efforts at high schools and colleges for the Army because you oppose the war in Iraq.

10. Supporting the right of a suspected terrorist to legal representation and a fair trial.

When students have completed the questionnaire, divide them into groups of four to six to share their responses and discuss those items on which they disagree. Remind students to listen respectfully to views they oppose and to discuss differing points of view without personal attacks. Have a reporter in each group tell the class which items the group disagreed about and why.

On which items is there unanimity? On which is there disagreement? On which is there the most disagreement? In each case, why?


Reading 1:

Patriotism and American rights and values

A dictionary definition of patriotism is "love for or devotion to one's country."  A definition of a patriot is "one who loves his country and zealously supports its authority and interests." ( Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary )

What is this country one loves and is devoted to? It is a place with streets and highways, homes, schools and stores, hills and valleys, rivers and woods, with family, friends and neighbors. We usually come to love this place. It is familiar, it fills us with memories, it is home, and we will defend it from attackers with our lives.

This place also has a history. As the United States of America it was created more than 200 years ago. Its founding documents express the essence of the rights and values that most Americans are devoted to and love.

The Declaration of Independence

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Preamble to the Constitution

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The Bill of Rights

"Article I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."


When the history of the United States of America began, African-Americans had no "unalienable rights." Their white American rulers did not permit them "liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The United States government did not derive its "just powers" from African-Americans or women, or even some white men. Were 19th century abolitionists unpatriotic to oppose their government and demand "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for African-Americans?

In our own time, President Bush said that Iraq threatened the security of the United States. Did providing for "the common defense" (as the Preamble says) require the president to order an attack on Iraq? Is it patriotic to agree with and support him? Is it patriotic to disagree with and oppose him? How might Article I of the Bill of Rights apply to these questions?

What, exactly, is "an establishment of religion"? Does it include putting a Christian crèche in front of City Hall at Christmas time? What is freedom of the press? Did it include publishing during the Vietnam War classified government documents called the Pentagon Papers? Is supporting or opposing such actions patriotic?

And what do we Americans mean by "promote the general welfare"? Would promoting the general welfare include supporting the "right" of ten-year-olds to work in factories? Or opposing it? What about the "right" of the elderly to experience a measure of economic safety through Social Security? What is a patriotic viewpoint in each case?

The founding fathers regarded themselves as patriots. So have Americans on both sides or somewhere in the middle on almost every issue, from going to war on Iraq to creating the Social Security system. But, historically, Americans in the minority on certain issues have been viewed by the majority as unpatriotic.

The abolitionists were up against a system that was taken for granted by the majority, and they were viewed by many to be unpatriotic. So were the early labor organizers; women seeking the right to vote; opponents of the Vietnam War; and civil rights movement supporters, both African-American and white.

Americans are most likely to see an opposing minority as unpatriotic during a time of war. At a time of national crisis, they reason, people should support their government. But what if you think the government is wrong? Should you support the government whatever it does in a time of war?

During the Vietnam War, some patriotic Americans placed bumperstickers on their cars saying, "America-love it or leave it." Other patriotic Americans who loved the country but thought the war was wrong demonstrated against it. Was this minority unpatriotic?

In time, the minority opposing the Vietnam War became a majority. Were those who still supported the war patriotic? And what about the patriotism of draft-age Americans who fled to Canada because they opposed the war and would not serve in it but who later came back to the country because they loved it?

For discussion

1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?

2. Invite students to answer any of the questions in the reading. How and why do they agree and disagree?

3. Dictionary definitions of "patriotism" and "patriot" are not very useful in determining whether a particular act is or is not patriotic. Operational definitions can be. For example, by patriotism I mean thus and so. Or, by a patriot I mean such and such.

A "fish bowl" can be useful when people bring very different perceptions to a controversial topic. Invite five to seven students to begin the conversation on "patriotism" and "patriot." Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that this group reflects diverse points of view.

Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl. Only people in the fish bowl can speak; the others are to listen carefully as each student in the fish bowl speaks to the subject without being interrupted. The teacher designates a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fish bowl. After 15 minutes or so, he or she invites students from the larger circle to participate in the conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

After the time allotted for the fish bowl, invite students to assess the experience through such questions as the following:

  • Were all points of view heard? Respected?
  • What new ideas, questions, and facts were introduced into the discussion that complicated your thinking?
  • As a result of the conversation, have you changed your views at all?
  • What's one thing you want to remember from this discussion?
  • What's one question that didn't get asked or wasn't sufficiently discussed that you want to discuss in the future?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: